By Steve Lichtenstein
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When Nets general manager Sean Marks engineered a draft day trade last June by giving up his second-best player, forward Thaddeus Young, for Indiana’s 20th overall pick, I questioned whether he got fair value.
Given that the most notable player selected in that slot over the last two decades is probably Orlando guard Evan Fournier, who did Marks think he could get there?
Caris LeVert, that’s who.
Three foot surgeries dropped the 22-year-old from the University of Michigan out of the lottery and into Marks’ arms on draft night. Marks won’t be letting go anytime soon.
LeVert, who sat out the Nets’ first 20 games this season to fully rehabilitate from his most recent surgery in March, is now firmly entrenched in Brooklyn’s starting and crunch-time lineups. With his length, athleticism and mental awareness, he stands out as the only Nets player besides point guard Jeremy Lin who excels on both ends of the floor.
LeVert scored 13 points in 26 minutes of the Nets’ 120-112 victory over the tanking Knicks on Sunday in front of a sold-out crowd on “Biggie Night” at Barclays Center. He made all four of his field goal attempts, including both from 3-point land. But it was his subtle plays — the passes, the contests and the help defense — that made him special.
You can say LeVert came up B.I.G., since the Nets used Sunday night to celebrate the shortened life of rapper Notorious B.I.G. with a halftime banner raising.
“(LeVert’s) activity, his IQ, his defensive IQ is really impressive for a rookie — one of the best I’ve seen,” said Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, whose team snapped a 16-game home losing streak. “There was a Derrick Rose right-hand drive (with 2:43 remaining in a tightening game), Jeremy was there, but I think it’s going in. Caris comes over and makes it a tough shot (because) he’s got to finish over him.”
For three quarters, Knicks star forward Carmelo Anthony was held in check, but he got hot in the final stanza despite some decent defense from Nets forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Anthony scored 12 points on just four field goal attempts to get the Knicks, who had trailed by as many as 22 points in the third quarter, to within 106-101 with five minutes left.
Despite a size disadvantage, LeVert was tasked by Atkinson to guard Anthony after Hollis-Jefferson picked up his fifth personal foul. LeVert held Anthony scoreless over the final three minutes.
Earlier in the period, LeVert was switched onto Anthony on the right block. LeVert stripped the ball away and then Lin fed Hollis-Jefferson for the ensuing transition dunk that temporarily halted the Knicks’ momentum.
“Rondae was playing hard against (Anthony),” LeVert said. “He was making him take tough shots. He had 27 (points) on like 26 shots. I think we did great as a team defensively, and I just tried to make it tough on him.”
The Nets have been extremely careful with LeVert’s development, resting him on occasion, limiting his minutes, and since Lin’s return after the All-Star break, pairing the veteran with the rookie on the court as often as possible.
“Just having a veteran point guard like that on the floor, just his presence out there sometimes just calms us all down,” LeVert said. “We watch film, and he tells me little stuff. He tells me how to get open and how to defend certain players. That means the most to me.”
In the Nets’ seven March games, LeVert has averaged 13 points and four assists with just one turnover per 36 minutes. He is shooting 55.8 percent from the floor and 33.3 percent from behind the 3-point line, a number that should improve over time considering LeVert was a 40 percent 3-point shooter in college.
“I don’t think it’s anything mechanical,” LeVert said. “I just try to go out there and shoot the same shot every time, trying to be consistent with my footwork and my form. Today it went in.”
If LeVert can bring that 3-point efficiency up above the league average (35.9 percent), and if he bulks up from his 6-foot-7, 203-pound frame, the Nets will possess a rare commodity.
All the talk in New York is about their prodigy, Kristaps Porzingis, who, at 7-foot-3, is indeed a unicorn. However, in today’s NBA, the most valuable player is one who can knock down 3’s, guard multiple positions and get to the rim to either finish or execute a pass to an open teammate anywhere on the court, especially to the opposite corner.
Except for the 3’s, LeVert can already do all of the above at a high level, giving him the potential to develop into the star this franchise has lacked since Jason Kidd left nine years ago.
LeVert has all the tools, including the ability to showcase something spectacular when the moment calls for it. Ian Eagle’s “Oh! The LeVertical!” will be a staple on YES Network broadcast for years.
Hollis-Jefferson, who was a rookie sensation last season but hasn’t yet worked out the kink in his jump shot, appreciates what LeVert has brought to Brooklyn.
“Most of the rookies that come in aren’t good at listening and working hard and just being a good teammate,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “Give (LeVert) credit. You want to be around him — his energy and passion for the game.”
The Nets are 3-4 in March, including a competitive 105-96 loss in Dallas on Friday without center Brook Lopez that closed their eight-game road trip. For a team that has just 12 wins in 65 games this season, that’s progress.
Now that I’ve seen what LeVert can do, I am more confident Marks’ trade will also eventually be placed in the Nets’ win column.
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